3.5.3 Criminal Exploitation County Lines and Modern Day Slavery


In October 2020, this new chapter replaced a previous chapter on Child Criminal Exploitation.

1. Definition

Criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable young adults is a geographically widespread form of harm. Child Criminal Exploitation occurs where an individual or a group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child Criminal Exploitation does not always involve physical contact, it can also occur through the use of technology.

“Criminal Exploitation involves exploitative situations, contexts and relationships where young people (or a third person or persons) receive ‘something’ (e.g. food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts, money) as a result of them completing a task on behalf of another individual or group of individuals; this is often of a criminal nature.”

It can involve the exploitation of children and young people (aged under 18 years) in the storage, distribution and selling of illegal drugs, under violent coercion or exploited through the use of debt, or promise of cash or drugs. Patterns of grooming behaviour by adults can be seen to be similar to those associated with sexual exploitation (CSE). There will be a power imbalance and children and young people should not be viewed as at fault, 'choosing a lifestyle' or making an informed choice.

Criminal exploitation is not restricted to drugs; some children are transporters of cash as well as firearms and weapons, and are coerced into carrying out theft and burglaries. Many children and young people subject to CCE are exploited by criminal gangs. See Gangs Procedure. Children and young people involved in criminal exploitation are often sent to differing locations within the United Kingdom to carry out tasks for gangs, such as supplying drugs to suburban areas, market and coastal towns ('county lines'). This type of movement of children falls within the legal definition of 'trafficking' in the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Child trafficking is defined as the 'recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt' of a child for the purpose of exploitation. See Children from Abroad, including Victims of Modern Slavery, Trafficking and Exploitation Procedure.

County Lines

County lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more targeted areas within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of “deal line”. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move (and store) the drugs and money. They will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons. (Serious Violence Strategy, HO 2018)

Gangs establish a base in the market location, typically by taking over the homes of local vulnerable adults by force or coercion in a practice referred to as ‘cuckooing’.

County lines is a major, cross-cutting issue involving drugs, violence, gangs, safeguarding, criminal and sexual exploitation, modern slavery, and missing persons. The response to tackle it involves the police, the National Crime Agency, a wide range of Government departments, local government agencies and VCS (voluntary and community sector) organisations. 

County lines activity and the associated violence, drug dealing and exploitation has a devastating impact on young people, vulnerable adults and local communities.

Like other forms of abuse and exploitation, county lines exploitation: 

  • Can affect any child or young person (male or female) under the age of 18 years;
  • Can affect any vulnerable adult over the age of 18 years;
  • Can still be exploitation even if the activity appears consensual;
  • Can involve force and/or enticement-based methods of compliance and is often accompanied by violence or threats of violence; 
  • Can be perpetrated by individuals or groups, males or females, and young people or adults; 
  • Is typified by some form of power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the exploitation. Whilst age may be the most obvious, this power imbalance can also be due to a range of other factors including gender, cognitive ability, physical strength, status, and access to economic or other resources.

Mode of Operation

One of the key factors found in most cases of county lines exploitation is the presence of some form of exchange (e.g. carrying drugs in return for something). Where it is the victim who is offered, promised or given something they need or want, the exchange can include both tangible (such as money, drugs or clothes) and intangible rewards (such as status, protection or perceived friendship or affection).

It is important to remember the unequal power dynamic within which this exchange occurs and to remember that the receipt of something by a young person or vulnerable adult does not make them any less of a victim. It is also important to note that the prevention of something negative can also fulfil the requirement for exchange, for example a young person who engages in county lines activity to stop someone carrying out a threat to harm his/her family.

Signs to look out for

A young person’s involvement in county lines activity often leaves signs. A young person might exhibit some of these signs, either as a member or as an associate of a gang dealing drugs. Any sudden changes in a young person’s lifestyle should be discussed with them. Some indicators of county lines involvement and exploitation are listed below, with those at the top of particular concern:

  • Persistently going missing from school or home and / or being found out-of-area;
  • Unexplained acquisition of money, clothes, or mobile phones
  • Excessive receipt of texts /phone calls
  • Relationships with controlling /older individuals or groups
  • Leaving home / care without explanation
  • Suspicion of physical assault / unexplained injuries
  • Parental concerns 
  • Carrying weapons
  • Significant decline in school results / performance
  • Gang association or isolation from peers or social networks
  • Self-harm or significant changes in emotional well-being

See also Appendix 1: Child Exploitation Screening Tool.

CCE needs to be viewed in the context of broader vulnerabilities and other forms of exploitation and abuse. This could be within families, communities or more sophisticated organised crime groups. There needs to be consideration around the overlap and links between familial violence and/or criminality, trauma, peer to peer abuse, CSE, gang violence, going missing, and trafficking and modern slavery.

2. Risks

Particularly at risk are vulnerable children and those who do not have support networks.

Gangs and other exploiters target children with special educational needs, mental health problems or disabilities. Those exploiting children and young people also look for emotional vulnerability, such as children experiencing problems at home, absent parents or bereavement. Exploiters seek to fill that emotional gap for the child and become their 'family'.

Boys are more likely to be exploited in this way but girls are also affected. The most common age for children to be exploited is between the ages of 15 and 16 but it also affects children below the age of 11.

Gangs and other exploiters are increasingly looking to recruit 'clean skins' i.e. children with no previous criminal record who are unlikely to be stopped by the police. Often it is looked after children, particularly those in residential children's homes and those who have been placed out of their home area, are targeted for exploitation.

3. Indicators

Anyone working with children and young people should be aware of the following risk indicators to help identify CCE:

  • Persistently going missing from school or home and/or being found out of the area where they live;
  • Unexplained acquisition of money, clothes, or mobile phones;
  • Excessive receipt of texts / phone calls;
  • Relationships with controlling / older individuals or groups;
  • Regularly leaving their home without explanation;
  • Suspicion of physical assault / unexplained injuries;
  • Parental concerns;
  • Carrying weapons;
  • Significant decline in educational attainment and attendance;
  • Arrested for possession and intent to supply of significant quantities of drugs, particularly heroin and crack cocaine;
  • Arrested away from their own home area; and
  • Arrested on public transport, particularly on trains.

4. Protection and Action to be Taken

It is important that practitioners are open to the fact that children and young people do not always recognise that they are being criminally exploited. They will often not wish to disclose information relating to their exploitation due to fear of repercussions and also the fear of losing the group they belong to and identify with. If any practitioner believes that a child or young person is at risk of, or is being criminally exploited, the Sheffield Child Exploitation Screening Tool needs to be completed. The screening tool is designed to be used by all professionals working with children and their parents or carers. A child is defined as a person who is under 18 years of age.

The Sheffield Child Exploitation Screening Tool does not replace existing multi-agency safeguarding arrangements that are in place in Sheffield. If you have safeguarding and child protection concerns about a child’s welfare then you should contact the Sheffield Safeguarding Hub to discuss.

This tool will help you to make an initial judgement regarding the risk of child exploitation; it is neither a specialist assessment or referral form. The tool will help practitioners to focus on the specific child exploitation (CE) evidence, indicators, existing safety and vulnerabilities, and determine whether further investigations are needed by Children’s Social Care or referral to another prevention and early intervention service.

When you are considering a referral to the Sheffield Safeguarding Hub (Children's Social Care) or sharing your concerns with the child’s allocated social worker, this screening tool should form the basis of those discussions and your professional analysis.

Practitioners need to exercise their professional judgement when using this tool because factors such as the child’s age, additional vulnerabilities, their history, may mean that the child is more vulnerable to CE. Professional judgement also includes concerns that you can evidence as well as concerns based ‘gut feeling’. It is important that you differentiate between the two and provide explanation and rationale. It is important to include the child’s strengths and existing safety so that this can be considered

See also Appendix 1: Child Exploitation Screening Tool.

Practitioners should also consider if the child or young person has been trafficked and consider a referral to the National Referral Mechanism.

National Referral Mechanism

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking or modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support.

The NRM is also the mechanism through which the Modern Slavery Human Trafficking Unit (MSHTU) collects data about victims. This information contributes to building a clearer picture about the scope of human trafficking and modern slavery in the UK.

The NRM was introduced in 2009 to meet the UK’s obligations under the Council of European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. At the core of every country’s NRM is the process of locating and identifying “potential victims of trafficking”.

From 31 July 2015 the NRM was extended to all victims of modern slavery in England and Wales following the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

For more information see Children from Abroad including Victims of Modern Slavery, Trafficking and Exploitation.

Modern Slavery

Modern Slavery encompasses:

  1. Human trafficking;
  2. Slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour.

From 31 July 2015, in all UK referrals, the Competent Authority (trained decision makers) must consider whether the person is a victim of human trafficking. In England and Wales, if someone is found not to be a victim of trafficking, the Competent Authority must go on to consider whether they are the victim of another form of modern slavery, which includes slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour.

The NRM grants a minimum 45-day reflection and recovery period for victims of human trafficking or modern slavery. Trained decision makers decide whether individuals referred to them should be considered to be victims of trafficking according to the definition in the Council of Europe Convention. In England and Wales, further consideration is made to those who do not meet the definition of trafficking. Their cases are then considered against the definitions of slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour.

For more information see Children from Abroad including Victims of Modern Slavery, Trafficking and Exploitation Procedure.

Appendix 1: Child Exploitation Screening Tool

Click here to view Appendix 1: Child Exploitation Screening Tool.